Turkey’s downing of a Russian aircraft that had crossed into its airspace and refused to depart after numerous warnings is sad, but not unexpected. Most people thought it would turn out to be an accident of the overcrowded and ill-managed airspace over Syria, but this appears to be something else. This looks to be a deliberate provocation on the part of the Russians.
They were pushing Turkey’s buttons. Why the Russians would be doing that just now is conjecture. Perhaps they were testing the limits of what they think they can get away with. Or maybe they wanted to bully a NATO country who is determined to see Russia’s ally Bashir al-Assad ousted.
Russia is continuing to play out a very perplexing hand of cards. They are deliberately trying to manipulate the Western countries, even at the risk of their young pilots. The question is will the West and particularly President Obama take the bait? There was not much of a downside for the Russians in trying this (other than for the poor pilots). Fortunately, there is not much chance NATO was ever going to jump in bed with Putin on Syria.
This started with the Russian push into the Crimea, and then into eastern Ukraine. Putin tested the limits -- as bullies are want to do. He was surprised by the sanctions the Europeans put on him, and eventually chose to use a foray into Syria to distract the West, and maybe co-opt them.
Russia is continuing to play out a very perplexing hand of cards. They are deliberately trying to manipulate the Western countries, even at the risk of their young pilots.
His actions there have enhanced several of Russia’s national interests. First and foremost, he wants to support Assad. Second, he wants to distract the West from Ukraine. Third, he wants to lessen the regional standing of the U.S. and its allies while increasing his own. And -- only a distant fourth -- does Putin care about fighting ISIS. In fact, he would really like to leave the West and our allies in the Middle East with no options but a choice between Assad and ISIS.
The shoot-down, over a piece of Turkish territory, will allow Putin and his Internet trolls to use to the line that Turkey and NATO are not really fighting ISIS -- that they want to hinder his efforts. He will push the line that Turkey is in fact protecting ISIS.
Granted, the Turkish policy of taking the opportunity of the ISIS fight to also deal with the Kurds who they feel are a threat, has given Russia this opening. The Turks need to back off of this path, but America should stand with Turkey.
Just to emphasize the point: Hatay is Turkish airspace and is disputed by Syria. This has nothing to do with ISIS (or any allegation that Turkey is protecting ISIS). It has everything to do with defending Turkish airspace and sovereignty. The Russian claim that their plane was in Syrian airspace is specious.
ISIS is the biggest problem, but Assad is no solution. His survival serves only the interests of the Russians and the Iranians. America’s less-than-robust leadership is allowing the Russians to try and exploit seams among its allies.
Steven P. Bucci, Ph.D., is the director of the Douglas and Sarah Allison Center for Foreign and National Security Policy at The Heritage Foundation.